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Growing pains

child; youth; growing; pain; muscle; leg; arm; night ;

Up to one in three children have pain in their limbs, usually the legs, which does not seem to have any physical cause. Usually this pain comes for a few nights and goes goes away for a while, then may come back. The pain can be quite mild or bad enough to upset the child's sleep.

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Important note

Any pain which does not go away, or where there is swelling or tenderness, or the child feels unwell, has a fever or any difficulty in movement, such as a limp, should be checked by a doctor. There is a danger that a serious cause may be overlooked if pain is just thought to be growing pains.

What are growing pains?

  • 'Growing pains' are pains or aches that come and go, usually in the muscles of the calves and thighs, or behind the knees, or occasionally in the arms - but not in the joints. They usually do not happen every night.
  • Growing pains often start between 3 and 5 years of age or during the early years of school and may continue into adolescence - often lasting for several years on and off. They cease by mid adolescence.
  • They affect about the same number of boys and girls.
  • There are no long term health problems from growing pains.

Causes

While legs do grow during the night rather than the day, 'growing pains' are not caused by growing. Growing occurs very, very slowly (even in growth spurts) making it unlikely that it would cause pain. Also most growing happens during puberty, while mostly children have 'growing pains' during childhood.

No clear cause has been found for growing pains. In some cases children may:

  • be very tired from over exercising
  • be emotionally stressed or unhappy
  • have postural problems (how they stand, sit or walk)
  • be overweight.

None of the above, nor any other causes have been clearly proven by research to cause the pains. Research has shown that children with flat feet and very active children do not get growing pains more often than other children.

Symptoms of growing pains

  • The pain is often described as an ache, but can be severe enough to wake children from sleep.
  • The pain often comes in both legs whereas pain that is caused by an underlying physical problem is more likely to be in one limb.
  • Growing pains usually come in the evening or at night and are usually gone in the morning. They may happen for 3 or 4 nights, then not again for a month or so.
  • There may also be feelings of restlessness.
  • Growing pains do not affect movement or general health, do not cause swelling and do not cause the legs to be sore to touch.
  • A doctor is not able to find any health problems.

Other causes of pain

Children with pain should be seen by a doctor to make sure there are no serious causes such as injury, infections (including Ross River virus and osteomyelitis), arthritis (including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis), or other physical problems, especially if the pain:

  • is causing a limp
  • involves the joints (eg knees, ankles)
  • is severe
  • is persistent, including still being there during the day time
  • occurs with fever or other signs of illness such as tiredness and loss of appetite etc.
  • or if there is swelling or the area is red or hot or sore to touch.

What you can do

This should be what helps the child feel better. Some or any of the following may help:

  • stretching the calf and thigh muscles before bedtime
  • stretching the muscles when there is pain
  • gentle massage
  • heat such as a hot water bottle
  • paracetamol or ibuprofen could be tried if the child cannot sleep (see the topic 'Using paracetamol or ibuprofen')
  • reassurance. The Kid's Health topic 'Growing pains' may be helpful in explaining to a primary school aged child what is going on.

Have your child checked by a doctor and/or podiatrist to see if there are any treatments that may help.

More information

Better Health Channel 'Growing pains' 
 http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Growing_pains?open 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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